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50 ways the military has changed in the last 50 years

  • 50 ways the military has changed in the last 50 years

    Half a century ago, the nearly 15-year-old Vietnam War was in full swing with a new Commander-in-Chief: President Richard Nixon. The draft for men was in effect, women were decades from achieving full military status, and the social perception of the U.S. Armed Forces and the government was at an all-time low.

    A lot has changed since then. The Armed Forces have pulled out of Vietnam and engaged in several conflicts since, from the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War to the war in Afghanistan and the American-led intervention in Syria. Over the years we've also seen huge advances in military technology, and seismic shifts in an array of long-held policies. In many ways, the United States military looks entirely different than it once did.

    Stacker rounded up 50 of the biggest ways the military has changed over the last 50 years. From doing away with conscription to allowing LGBTQ individuals to serve openly, read on to find out how the military is different than it was five decades ago. 

    ALSO: Do you know your military traditions?

  • Doing away with the draft

    Perhaps the biggest way the military has changed over the last 50 years is conscription, or the draft. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, primarily during the Vietnam War, the draft was a hugely controversial fact of everyday life. Young men between the ages of 18 and 25 could be called for service at any time. These days, participation in the military is entirely voluntary—although all men between 18 and 25 years old are still required to register in the Selective Service System should a draft be reinstated.

  • Role of the National Guard

    In the days of the Vietnam War, joining the National Guard was seen as a way to dodge the draft. Most National Guard units never saw action—President Lyndon B. Johnson was fully against calling them into action—so joining one was a surefire way to fulfill your requirement as safely as possible. These days, the National Guard is a key part of our military forces. Making up most of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Guard now holds key duties, like combat engineering and air refueling, to ensure that they’re a more active part of the armed forces.

  • Decrease in eligibility

    According to Maj. Gen. Mike Davidson, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard, 75% of men aged 18 to 22 are not eligible to join the U.S. Armed Forces today. Factors like obesity, a criminal record, and a lack of education eliminate a large percentage of the citizens from eligibility. This is a departure from the prevailing notion in the 1960s and 1970s that nearly every able-bodied man was eligible to join the military.

  • Decrease in overall defense spending

    In 1968, the United States Government spent $449.3 billion on national defense, or roughly 10% of the country's GDP (or $3.2 trillion in today's money). In 2018, that number was at almost double the amount but represented just 3.8% of U.S. GDP.

  • Change in force size

    The overall number of active duty military personnel is down. In 1968, there were 3.5 million active duty soldiers. In 2017, there were 1.3 million with 800,000 reserve forces. Even with the military engaged in conflicts all over the world, the number of active duty servicemen remains lower than in previous generations.

  • Women in the military

    While overall active duty numbers are down, there is one group enlisting more than ever: women. In 1973, women represented just 2% of the enlisted forces and 8% of the officer corps. Today, women make up 16% of the enlisted forces and 18% of the officer corps.  

  • Women in combat

    Women in the military aren’t just filling desk jobs. In 1991, Congress authorized women to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships. Women responded well to the new legislation: During the Vietnam War, only 11,000 women were deployed. During Desert Storm, 41,000 women were deployed. In 2016, all combat positions were officially opened to women.

  • 75th Ranger Regiment

    The 75th Ranger Regiment is the Army’s premier force, made up of their most elite soldiers. In order to join this exclusive group, a prospective Ranger has to pass a series of grueling physical challenges in austere environments. Since its beginning, the unit had been composed of only men. The first woman completed the Ranger Regiment's Ranger Assessment and Selection Program II in December of 2016, and became the first woman in the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2017. This milestone (along with others, such as a woman in her late-30s passing Ranger school in 2015), opened the door to women being eligible for elite training in all areas of the U.S. Armed Forces, including Special Forces.

  • Don't ask, don't tell

    The armed forces have become increasingly diverse over the past 50 years. One major step in that process was repealing the long-held "don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept LGBTQ people from serving openly. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, gay and lesbian service members would either be barred from serving or would have to serve while lying about their sexual orientation. A single slip-up, and they could face discharge. That is no longer the case today.

  • Transgender policies

    While the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell” allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly in the armed forces, transgender Americans didn’t have the same opportunities or protections. A policy was established in 2016 that allowed transgender individuals to serve. The policy also set standards for medical care, outlining the range of services provided. President Trump tweeted in 2017 to repeal this policy, putting the future of it in question. Most recently, a U.S. appeals court ruled in favor of Trump's transgender ban barring certain personnel. The Supreme Court will be next to issue a decision.

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